THE WORLD of magic had Houdini; the culinary world has chefs who bind themselves in obstacles and lock themselves into situations that seem impossible, then miraculously produce banquets to astonish their audience.
Last week it was China. Three chefs, each the head chef of a restaurant in Yangchow, none of whom had worked together before or traveled outside his country, arrived in Washington late Friday night to face the challenge of creating a grand dinner by Sunday afternoon.
The dinner was a prelude to their demonstrations for the International Wine & Food Expo at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, which ends today, its last demonstration, at 11 a.m., being the Chinese chefs' lantern carving and hot dishes.
Saturday was pretty much a washout. They couldn't manage to eat the strange food that is a Western breakfast, then had to dash around the city buying ingredients, so by Saturday afternoon they were famished and suffering from jet lag. Aline Berman, owner of Court of the Mandarins, which was providing the banquet facilities, took pity on their stomachs and "bought them a whole lot of 'Oodles of Noodles,' " which they cooked and ate as lunch. Then they had an appointment at the Chinese embassy.
Not much progress on Saturday.
Sunday the pace heated up. The three chefs arrived before 7 a.m. in the Court of the Mandarins' upstairs kitchen, to begin a cooking marathon that was to last 14 hours with no time to stop for breakfast or lunch. By noon, Berman was reporting a "fantastic language problem" in the kitchen, because the chefs' Mandarin dialect was so heavily accented that Berman's staff couldn't understand them. Still, the stockpot was started and the meal was under way.
A chef in China is used to a battalion of sculleries to assist him. A single cook might have 10 assistants to do his chopping and mincing. These visiting chefs had a total of two, and even those were not trained to cut foods the same way as the three Yangchow chefs. So the menu had to be revised, dishes deleted, and the three-dimensional edible basket that was to serve as centerpiece and first course was cut back to a two-dimensional flower basket arranged on a plate.
By 4 p.m., the work quarters had taken on the look of a typical mainland Chinese kitchen. One man was kneeling on the stone floor trimming mustard greens, which he arranged in piles on the floor. On a wooden counter were the components of dishes to come: rectangles of defrosted fish, half-dissected chickens, hunks of pork and the carcasses of sea bass. Plastic bowls on the floor were like small ponds, one floating tiny shrimp, another with black mushrooms, jellyfish in two others. And trays were stacked with decorated "cakes" of duck and shrimp paste, tiny sweet bean pastries, butterflied shrimp coated with sesame seeds. An enormous wok stacked with round aluminum steaming baskets burbled in the corner.
The kitchen was silent, except for the faint sounds of simmering.
Chef Chen Chun Song was slicing maraschino cherries into fans as carefully as if they were truffles. He painstakingly snipped sprigs of parsley with a tweezer and arranged them with a subtlety that escaped Western eyes, then completed a flower-basket platter, its calla lilies carved from raw potato and its crysanthemums from sweet potatoes, and stretched plastic wrap over it. But he had never used plastic wrap before; in China, the platter would be completed at the moment it was to be served, thus required no covering. For several minutes he smoothed the plastic to tight perfection over the plate. Then he turned to peeling shrimp.
It was an hour before the banquet, and one of China's top chefs was peeling shrimp.
Wang Zhong Hai was concentrating on semicircles of turnips and beets, trimming them with a fluted cutter he had brought from China. Along with carrot rounds and shredded egg tassels, they were forming lanterns on a platter that would hold airy chicken dumplings. Chef Sun Ting Ji had the intense concentration one expects from an artist as he arranged slices of dried pork, brought from China, on small plates. He peeled ginger roots with a cleaver that had a 5-inch-deep blade, honed to razor sharpness. No peeler was among their tools. And chopsticks were used only once, to stir a beet-juice coloring for radish flowers. These chefs used only their hands and their cleavers, which seemed extensions of their hands.
The three silent chefs worked alone, except for such moments as when one chef reached into another's breast pocket not for a pen, but for a spoon; or when one brought a chicken dumpling for another to taste and they mutually decided on a revision. Quail eggs they had brought from China also required a consultation; their texture after being steamed wasn't right, and the result was that a soup called Moonrise on the Coral Reef had moons that sunk rather than rose.
Two bowls of translucent gelatinous blobs were removed from the steamer and approved. They were for the dessert, listed on the menu as cherry soup but actually a warm sweetened broth of frog bone marrow, highly prized in China at about $100 a pound, and a rare treat they carried with them for this dinner.
At 5:30, the chefs put on their tall white toques and moved downstairs, where six large woks awaited the final cooking of the dishes. The Court of the Mandarins' waitresses, in black pants and vests, began the orderly serving and removal of plates which, when it goes so well, looks routine but is the result of intense organization. Deft chopsticks delivered small portions of 12 cold dishes--Marco Polo shrimp, tasseled jellyfish, braised fish, gold coin mushrooms--to 40 diners, among them Wolf Trap's Catherine Shouse, the National Theatre's Maurice Tobin, undersecretary of commerce Peter McCoy and several local restaurateurs.
To guests who had many times sat through tours de force executed by chefs suffering from jet lag after flying around the world, this banquet was a rare accomplishment. These three chefs were using a strange kitchen in a strange country, with unfamiliar ingredients. ("The flour is too heavy," the chefs later said. "The fish is no good. The shrimp is no good. The chicken is no good; it is not delicious, it has no taste, its texture is too soft. The eggs and vegetables are all artificially made bigger. Nothing is good, not even the vegetables.") They were doing nearly all their own scullery work, which is usually done for them. They had had little sleep and even less food; in fact, they had had only tea all day. In such cases, banquet-goers know by now, the food is likely to look impressive but taste disappointing.
But the Yangchow chefs had produced a banquet that was remarkably delicious. The cold dishes were all delicate, but none of them dull. The sizzling rice soup, called Triple Crown Platter, was full-flavored, and the chicken dumplings on the Lantern in the Clouds platter were beautifully seasoned as well as cloud-textured. True, the sesame shrimp were based on tasteless crustaceans, and the steamed chicken made from our younger and more tender birds was mushily overcooked. Then there was the jellyfish soup, watery yet with a heavy aftertaste. But the tiny fish rolls, each wrapped with a strand of fish skin, were surprisingly moist and delicious for having been cooked in such circumstances. And duck with pine nuts was an extraordinary dish, worth a trip to Yangchow.
Or worth trying to replicate at home. Here, filtered through several translators and adapted to an American home kitchen, is Yangchow Duck with Pine Nuts, along with adaptations of two other recipes from the chefs from Yangchow.
YANGCHOW DUCK WITH PINE NUTS (10 servings)
This somewhat-rectangular flat cake is a layer of duck under a layer of shrimp paste, decorated with stripes of ham and pine nuts. To serve, it is cut into diamond shapes, like baklava. No beginner's dish, it is difficult, expensive and time consuming -- but intriguing. 1 duck
To season duck: 2 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons dry sherry 1 stick cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon szechuan peppercorns 1 scallion 2 slices fresh ginger
Topping: 3 ounces boneless chicken breast 1/2 pound shrimp 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons bamboo shoots, minced 2 tablespoons soaked, minced Chinese black mushrooms 2 tablespoons finely minced water chestnuts 4 tablespoons finely minced Smithfield ham 1/2 teaspoon each, juice squeezed from ginger, onion and scallion 2 tablespoons frozen green peas, defrosted 3 tablespoons pine nuts
Batter: 3 eggs Cornstarch, enough to form a thin batter Oil for deep frying Rub duck with salt. Fill cavity with sherry, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, scallion and ginger and let marinate 1 hour. Put duck in a bowl or plate and steam it for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until tender.
As soon as the duck is cool enough to handle, bone it by slitting skin down the back, then pulling and scraping the meat from the carcass, leaving the duck in one piece. Cut off wings and pull out leg bones. Lay out the boned duck, skin side down, on a plate, and smooth it into a nearly rectangular shape. Weight it down with a heavy pan or plate while you prepare the topping.
Chop and mash chicken and shrimp into a fine paste; a food processor does this easily. Blend in cornstarch, salt, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, water chestnuts, 2 tablespoons ham and the juice squeezed from the ginger, onion and scallion. Work in the green peas, leaving them whole. Spread mixture on the duck, smoothing it over the entire top surface and being sure the peas are covered with the shrimp paste. Decorate the top with stripes of 2 remaining tablespoons minced ham and pine nuts, three lines of each across the duck, pressing them firmly so they adhere.
Trim the sides of the duck so that it is rectangular, and cut into diamond shapes by making 3 cuts diagonally, then 3 cuts along the opposite diagonal.
Prepare the batter: beat eggs with enough cornstarch to make a thin batter, about the texture of pancake batter. Spread it on a large platter.
Heat enough oil for deep frying to 375 degrees, and have ready utensils--tongs and/or spatulas--sturdy enough to lift the entire duck cake in and out of the hot oil. Slide duck, skin side down, onto batter. Coat bottom and sides with batter, leaving top uncovered, then deep-fry the duck over high heat, skin side down, for 1 minute to firm and seal the batter. With duck still in the deep-fryer (the Chinese use a wok), remove pan from heat and let it cool for 3 minutes so that the batter does not brown before the shrimp paste has had time to cook. Return to high heat and continue to fry until the duck is golden and the shrimp paste is cooked through, about 5 to 9 minutes. If necessary, spoon hot oil over the top as it cooks to brown the top. Drain the duck, trim the sides so that it is rectangular, and cut into diamond shapes by making 3 cuts diagonally, then 3 cuts along the opposite diagonal.
Note: If you don't want to undertake the complete duck dish, just the shrimp paste can be formed into balls and steamed or fried.
SNOW CHICKEN (4 to 6 servings) 5 ounces boned chicken breast 2 tablespoons chopped raw pork 1 tablespoon finely minced scallion 1 tablespoon finely minced ginger 2 teaspoons dry sherry 4 egg whites 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 cup chicken broth 3 tablespoons cooked ham, julienned 1/4 cup bamboo shoots, sliced 1/2 ounce (6 tablespoons) dried wood ear fungus, soaked 1 cup raw spinach leaves
Grind chicken and pork or pure'e it in a food processor, adding just enough water to make a soft paste. Add scallion, ginger, wine, 2 of the egg whites and salt and mix well. Spread the paste on an 8- to 9-inch plate and steam 5 minutes. Let it cool. Beat remaining 2 egg whites until soft peaks form and spread over the chicken. Steam about 10 minutes, until whites are firm. Remove to a deep serving dish and cut into diamond shapes.
In a wok, heat chicken broth with ham, bamboo shoots, wood ears and spinach leaves. Bring to a boil and salt if necessary. Pour over chicken and serve immediately.
YANGCHOW STEAMED FISH (4 to 5 servings) 1 whole fish, head and tail left on, about 2 1/2 pounds (perch, rockfish, sea trout will do) 4 scallions 2 slices ginger 6 tablespoons chicken broth Dash of soy sauce 1 tablespoon dry sherry 2 ounces pork fat, finely diced 2 teaspoons cornstarch 3 tablespoons finely diced ham 1 ounce bamboo shoots, finely diced 1 ounce dried black Chinese mushrooms, soaked
Make several diagonal slashes across both sides of the fish and wash under hot water. On a plate large enough to hold the fish, lay scallions and ginger slices. Set fish on the scallions and pour the chicken broth, soy sauce and sherry over it. Sprinkle on the diced pork fat. Steam 10 minutes. Remove fish, reserve the juices that have collected in the plate and discard the rest of the steamed ingredients. Place fish in a wok over high heat and pour over it the reserved juices mixed with cornstarch. Add ham, bamboo shoots and mushrooms and bring to a boil, turning the fish once. Remove fish to a platter and pour juices over it. Serve immediately.